BOSTON — If there were any questions about where the Bruins stand in the hearts of the region's sports fans after winning the Stanley Cup on Wednesday, they were answered Saturday — a million times over.
An estimated crowd of over a million Bruins fans filled the city as the Bruins celebrated their first championship in 39 years with a "rolling rally" through the streets of Boston atop duck boats. The turnout surprised even the players.
"It was more overwhelming than I expected," Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. "It was an unbelievable turnout. I didn't know that many people lived in Boston, let alone be on the streets today. It was an awesome, awesome experience."
Fans packed the streets from outside TD Garden all the way to the end of the parade's end at Copley Square. It was a sea of black and gold interspersed with homemade signs and replica Cups. More importantly, the real Cup was on hand as well, raised high for all to see by captain Zdeno Chara on the lead boat as the caravan left the Garden, and later brought down off the boats to give the fans a closer look at various stops along the route.
"There was too many signs, I don't even remember all of them," defenseman Tomas Kaberle said. "No, there was some funny ones for sure. And it seems like all the people had a lot of fun and that is what it's all about. You play for the fans and you want to do well and this is obviously, it took 39 years for Boston to do it and it seems like it was the right moment."
It was a moment long awaited. Not just for the 39 years it took to win the Cup, but for the parade to start for some of the fans who arrived as early as Friday afternoon to stake out prime spots along the route.
"Thank you," forward Chris Kelly said with a laugh when asked what he would say to those diehard fans. "That just shows how important it was to the city, to the fans. Obviously there's not a better place to bring the Cup back to than Boston.
"It's been unbelievable," added Kelly, one of the key acquisitions the club made for the playoff run at the trade deadline. "Obviously from the moment we stepped off that plane with that trophy, the city's just embraced us. It's been one of those things you dream about but you don't truly know how it's going to be until you're in the situation."
The rally began with some brief speeches outside the Garden before the players boarded the 18 duck boats that would carry them through the streets. Boston mayor Thomas Menino, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, president Cam Neely, general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien all addressed the assembled fans, but not surprisingly the biggest cheers went to the players. That included an impromptu rap by forwards Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron before Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas wrapped up the pre-parade festivities.
"I only have a few things to say," Thomas said. "I want to say: You guys wanted it, we got it and we want to share it with you today. The whole city, the whole Northeast, everyone who supported us, let's have some fun."
That they did. With the Bruins finally joining the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics in winning a championship in the last decade, Boston was once again a hockey town.
"Yeah, well I mean, you always knew it," defenseman Andrew Ference said. "People would tell you, this is a hockey town, you guys have got to do it. We felt like we had to pull our weight and to finally do it, and do it with expectations as well. We kind of played the underdog bit at the end, but throughout the whole year and especially with the last couple of seasons the way they went, there were expectations for us to actually perform and to get the job done. So it's really satisfying to be able to do that, to live up to our expectations, but also the expectations of the fans and people in the city.
"Obviously it's my first Cup," Ference added. "I'm sure it's great to win anywhere, but to win it in a city like this, where legitimately the fans and the people in the city are as excited as the players are, is pretty special."
Thornton had won the Cup once before, with Anaheim in 2007. He said about 20,000-30,000 people showed up in the parking lot of the Ducks' arena to celebrate that championship. Anaheim, obviously, it's not exactly a hockey town.
But Boston certainly is back to being one. Over a million fans came out on a sunny Saturday in June to prove it.
"It looks like it," Thornton said. "I think by the turnout today, we're definitely back on top."